Friday, April 22, 2011

FOR THE PEOPLE AND BY THE PEOPLE -- DOROTHEA LANGE'S FOLK PHOTOGRAPHS

Dorothea Lange sitting on car with camera.
Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange began her career as a documentary photographer by signing on with the federal Resettlement Administration that eventually became the Farm Administration/Office of War Information. Her paid position, as it was for many other artists, was created by President Franklin Roosevelt to get people back to work during the Great depression that began in 1929 and lasted until 1941 when WWII began.


Her main assignment was to record the California migrants that were poring into the state looking for work. Depression unemployment figures reached a high of 25 percent in the U.S. In 1929, when the depression began,  60 percent of the country's wealth was held by the top 1 percent of the population. Sound familiar?

Florence Thompson with two of her seven children in a California migrant camp
Dorothea Lange -- Library of Congress
Dorothea was soon photographing folks that were the homeless and unemployed. The above 1936 photograph  known as "Migrant Mother" is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and some of her children in a California migrant camp.

In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. 
She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children 

killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children 
huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of a quality about it.

( From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).


Mississippi Delta Children -- 1936
Dorthea Lange -- Library of Congress
Dorthea continued working as a photographer through the Depression taking photos mainly in the southern and the western parts of the country. Her focus continued to be on the folks that suffered economically or for other injustices. 

GRANDMOTHER WITH HER HAND MADE QUILT -- 1936
Dorthea Lange --Library of Congress
Ms Lange's ability to capture the toughness of these folks that were trying to survive is amazing. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960 for her excellency in photography.

EX-TENANT FARMER ON RELIEF IN IMPERIAL VALLEY CALIFORNIA -- 1937
Library of Congress
Dorthea Lange
In the photo above Dorthea captures determination and dignity in the face of an ex-tenant farmer. The emotions that she knew to focus on in her photos is touching.

Japanese children at a California public school participating in a pledge to the flag -- 1941
Dorothea Lange -- Library of Congress
In 1942 some the Japanese children in the above photograph would be put into Japanese Internment camps with their families. Their sincerity of pledging glows from their faces in this Lange photo of 1941



Dorothea was not just a photographer recording people's  plights during the Depression -- she was gathering up the emotions of the folks that were the victims of social and economic injustices. The folks spoke back to her through her photographs releasing bold emotions in the face of adversity.


Dorothea Lange:  May 26, 1895 -- October 11, 1965 


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24 comments:

  1. Thank You for sharing these photos. I never heard of this woman. I have seen some of the work done by government programs in this era putting folks to work. In particular Chickasaw State Park in Tennessee. The lake and cabins they built still in incredible shape today. Today it is save the banks, less taxes for the wealthy and corporations to revitalize the country to make things better. Makes me scratch my head.

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  2. This is an absolutely marvellous post. She must have been quite a woman.

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  3. Every one a masterpiece -- thanks for reminding us of this wonderful photographer.

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  4. A very touching post Barbara. I enjoyed reading about Ms Lange and that bit of history. I think I've seen the Migrant Mother photo before...what a beautiful, if bittersweet way to remember those who came before us and to capture a little bit of what their world was like.

    "In 1929, when the depression began, 60 percent of the country's wealth was held by the top 1 percent of the population. Sound familiar?"...oh yeah, I have to say, it all is so sickening...what can make certain people so selfish and greedy?

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  5. Grampy -- there was an incredible amount of work that was performed by unemployed, homeless, artisans and all else in govt programs during the Great Depression. It gave people a chance. Today's economic crash sent money to the top and the bottom level of folks are paddling up against a river trying to stay afloat. Why were the Great Depression solutions of putting people back to work ignored this time around? -- barbara

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  6. Carole Anne -- She was a marvelous woman in my eyes. She suffered a limp from childhood polio but didn't let it stop her from becoming a successful photographer while also raising a family. Thanks -- barbara

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  7. June -- Thanks. She was terrific in her photography as well as in thought and deed. -- barbara

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  8. An excelletnt post and one I really enjoyed. Ms. Lange was such a talented lady.

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  9. Very interesting post! Incredible how Lange was able to capture the emotion of those who have suffered under the banner of freedom.

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  10. Rose -- I think we need to consume less so the one percent will have less income. It really is obscene that they have so much when many have so little. Some of Ms Lange's photos were so graphic of the poor that the federal government refused them. I thank you for your nice input. Dorothea certainly was an outstanding woman. -- barbara

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  11. Farmchick -- Imagine that those photos were taken before the age of digital -- and look at how sharp and crisp they are. Thanks -- barbaara

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  12. Darcy -- Your words express the feelings of bewilderment that I felt when I was first made aware of Lange's photos. My question is, do we perpetuate an underclass in this country? If yes, then why? -- barbara

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  13. So much to be said on this entire photo essay and today's mean-spirited society. I read an article in Newsweek magazine yesterday. It was entitled "Can Manhood Survive the Recession?" subtitled "Dead Suit Walking." Well worth a read. Today's subjects of impending and existing poverty are, perhaps, less dramatic than those who were the focus of Lange's lens in the 1930's. But they are also--perhaps--far poorer in the skills needed to withstand the poverty, overcome the sense of being cast out of our society than were those suffering in the 30's. Those people came from a hard-scrabble life. They had already developed "coping and survival skills." We, oTOH, have a society spoon-fed on "Go West young man..." as if there's no end to free-for-the-taking living. For an understanding of poverty in America today, and our shifting society, go to:

    http://www.newsweek.com/2011/04/17/dead-suit-walking.html

    The tragedy is just now unfolding, and it's a long and difficult road ahead...Right now, we're comfortably ignoring the fact that we have huge societal problems that are not going away anytime soon. Unemployment leads to all kinds of social blights: poverty, loss of home, indebtedness beyond ability to pay, despair, shame, crime, domestic abuse...the list goes on. It is nothing short of criminal what the wealthy have done to our entire society and to the environment, as well. Watching a movie on NetFlix last night, on a period in history when social unraveling ruled (12th Century Europe), and men did little but fight mini-wars throughout Europe...makes you wonder where we're heading today... pretty grim.

    Thanks Barbara.
    Dorthea's the best.
    Elora

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  14. Elora -- I read the excellent article subtitled Dead Suit Walking. This article tells me that the economy is removing jobs across all economic sectors -- from high end to low.

    Realization of their present situation might help the high-end unemployed folks to revamp their lifestyle. But easier said than done. Only they can decide.

    I would like to know the title of your netflix movie about 12th century Europe.

    Somehow I feel there is an answer to the complex situation we are presently in but no one wants to change their lifestyle. Its a wait and see type of situation. Unless one has a crystal ball, which I surely don't have -- and the gov't surely doesn't either.

    Thanks for this very interesting comment and the link to the Newsweek article.

    -- barbara

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  15. Barbara,
    Just happened to pop back in and read your request for the name of the series on Netflix. There are eight episodes in the series called "The Pillars of the Earth." There's quite a bit of violence in it, and occasionally we mute the sound while the battle roars, and then settle back and dig out the meanings and implications of the period and the goings-on. Truly, there are times when it seems as though people lived like animals....I watch a series like this in a "wide" view...taking in the cultural aspects of the film, the scenery, costumes, history of the time....It's all very captivating. History does repeat itself...the games of ruthless power remain the same throughout time. I sometimes believe we live in circles of never-ending, never-learning, never gaining...never improving, never-everything...just circles...

    Elora

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  16. Elora -- Thanks for sending the name of the series along to me. I looked on netflix and found it. We do seem to be going round in circles on this human learning curve -- barbara

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  17. Wow, what a wealth of heartache and hope she crammed into those photos!

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  18. Nice homage to Lange. Some of her photos are really famous. My Dad took hundreds of photos of the folks he saw along the way when he worked for the CCC and later the Soil Conservation and Forestry Services. I particularly remember those from West Virginia. Much has changed about that state, but the people in the coal fields look pretty much the same.

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  19. Dianne -- Wow -- are the photos still around that your dad took while working with the CCC?? What a fantastic exhibit, blog, book or etc. it would be about this period. --- barbara

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  20. Jayne -- Agree -- Her composition within the photos helped bring out that emotional quality Thanks for the comment -- barbara

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  21. Barbara, a very nice homage to a fine photographer and a sad period. I was interested in Rose and Elora's comments, too. A good book about the need for tax reform is The Trouble with Billionaires:: Why Too Much Money at the Top Is Bad for Everyone - (2010) by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks.

    I didn't watch the movie, but read Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, which focuses on the building of cathedrals, years ago. I haven't read the sequel, World Without End.

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  22. Wonderful post about an amazing woman. Timeless photos.

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  23. Sheri -- First of all -- I responded to your hay bale comment with my thinking cap off. I know you live in Ontario but I made reference that you lived in DC. Some days my brain gets a little loose.

    Thanks for the book mention above. I too was interested in Elora and Rose's comments. If you get Netflix you can get an instant play of the Pillars of Earth. Thanks -- barbara

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  24. Vicki -- Ms Lange was a terrific photographer. We are lucky that she was there in the 30s with her camera. -- barbara

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